'Dear Evan Hansen' review: Return this empty envelope to sender
If “Dear Evan Hansen” was a train wreck? See, that could work. A train wreck can be fun.
No, the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical is a long, unpleasant ride in an empty bus, through an America designed by Home Goods. And once it gets to its destination, you realize you should have flown instead. At least if the movie was audacious, or weird, or not more than two hours long, it would have been a fun ride.
Out in theaters this weekend, “Dear Evan Hansen” returns Hollywood scion Ben Platt to the title role, which already nabbed him a Tony, and then an Emmy and a Grammy. (That’s right, the guy from “The Politician” is almost in the same EGOT club as Rita Moreno and Whoopi Goldberg.)
If you’ve never seen the stage show (music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Steven Levenson) or listened to the soundtrack, here’s a primer. Evan Hansen is a catastrophically awkward high-schooler without a real friend in the world. His therapist has tasked him with writing an encouraging letter to himself. An angry, troubled outcast named Connor (played here by Colton Ryan) takes the letter when Evan prints it out in the school library. Soon after, Connor takes his own life, with the letter on his person, and his parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) think that he wrote it, and that Evan was his best friend.
Evan, starving for connection, goes along with the misunderstanding, which snowballs into elaborate lies that create a connection with Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), a viral video, performative social media grieving and a massive crowdfunding campaign in Connor’s memory led by a Type-A classmate (Amandla Stenberg). Soon, a boy who just wanted to be seen risks being exposed for all to see. Tragedy begets tragedy begets stirring showtunes.
As often happens with a runaway pop culture phenomenon, “Dear Evan Hansen” mania spawned “Dear Evan Hansen” backlash when the stage show exploded not even five years ago. The moral calculus of the plot is messy, yes. Evan is not exactly the sainted bullying victim that a first glance mistakes him for. Some critics’ charge that he’s a monster misses the point, I think. A protagonist need not be flawless; the tempest of his despair and the grief of Connor’s family could make for a heartbreaking dramatic storm.
It’s just the, um, everything else that’s the problem.
The translation to screen has only emphasized a hollow core in “Dear Evan Hansen.” It’s a story with wooden teeth, where opportunities to bite down on real social critique just leave splinters in their wake. Its chief conceit – that a heartfelt and spontaneous expression of pain could go so viral as to create a healing mass movement – suggests a world in which Upworthy posts are the dominant political force in America. As in the stage show, the montage of flying, screen-bound faces connecting over Evan’s trauma in song is a naïve block of Velveeta. The internet is many things (a mental health disaster, a driver of teen suicide, a good place to find bad information, an echo chamber splattered with horse dewormer) but a church of altruistic sincerity it’s not.
The film’s depiction of the class divide that tempts Evan to sin exists in a joyless fantasy, too. Evan’s isolation worsens because his single mom (fantastic Julianne Moore, hopefully being paid a figure with many zeroes at the end) is pulled away by endless shifts at the hospital where she works. Connor and Zoe’s family, the Murphys, are wealthy in a McMansion sort of way, mother Cynthia given to flights of casual Buddhism and gluten-free fancy and father Larry unable to express his feelings.
There are throwaway references to wealth and the lack of it in “Dear Evan Hansen,” though the film never really gets how much of a difference it makes in people’s lives. (The Hansen home is, to put it bluntly, not uncomfortable.) The Murphys’ affluence could not save their son, but if not for a devastating series of lies, the film seems to say, it actually could bring Evan out of his shell.
Also, not to put too fine a point on it, but watching Platt – the insta-star son of Hollywood exec Marc Platt, who produced this movie – cosplay poverty is hard to process.
You cannot deny his talent. The opening number, the undeniable “Waving Through a Window,” gives Platt an out-the-gate moment to unleash his gorgeous voice, and it soars through the hallways of Generic American High School as the camera captures his solitude amid the claustrophobic crush of classmates still just out of reach. It’s about the only time Platt disappears in “Dear Evan Hansen”; moon eyes, a mop of curls and mall mannequin chic sit on the 27-year-old actor like suburban drag.
The stage-to-screen transition is particularly awkward, and most of the songs emerge from characters’ mouths in situ, with no fantasy choreography, no location cuts, no reaction from the rest of the actors carrying on with their stage business. It’s all the more surreal because of the artless set and costume design on screen, with all the warmth of a stock photo.
The cumulative result: When Evan has a big emotional climax with the Murphys, it’s like watching a goldendoodle assault the cast of a pharmaceutical commercial with really stunning vibrato.
Not for nothing, this is the second time director Stephen Chbosky has helmed a movie about a teen outsider who on paper seems to struggle with very real mental health issues, and on film communicates that by mugging for the camera. (My apologies to Logan Lerman in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” for dragging him into this.)
Besides Moore as Evan’s mom, who’s a vision of nurturing grace and frayed ends, the only performer who transcends the unpleasantness is Ryan, playing Connor. An unseen presence throughout the film, he imbues brief moments with spiky charism. He even gets the best musical number in the whole affair, and the only one that actually takes advantage of the transportive possibilities of a film.
Somewhere in “Dear Evan Hansen,” there’s a heartrending tale of how sorrow swallows us all up and spits us out, changed into something even we don’t recognize. There could be restorative power in a story that’s honest about that. Instead, "Dear Evan Hansen” can only muster faux humanism, as its star sings through snot on his way to an Oscar campaign.
'Dear Evan Hansen'
Starring: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Amy Adams
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Rated: PG-13 for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive references
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Watch: In theaters